-- Can an employer regulate the number of bathroom breaks that workers take?
A Teamsters union in Chicago thinks not and claims workers have been disciplined for taking what the company says is an "excessive" number of breaks. Teamsters Local 743 filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board last month and is awaiting a response from WaterSaver Faucet Company.
Last winter, WaterSaver Faucet Company installed equipment to electronically monitor the production staff's washroom use, requiring employees to key in and out of the bathroom during work hours, according to the Teamsters' statement filed with the federal labor board, with one WaterSaver Faucet employee describing "excessive use" as spending 60 minutes or more over the last 10 working days, an average of six minutes a day.
Workers picketed outside the company on July 9 with placards that read, "Stop Bathroom Harassment!"
Teamsters Local 743's staff attorney Nick Kreitman said 19 of approximately 90 employees, or about 20 percent of the company workforce, were disciplined last month for "excessive washroom" use, according to the filing. The company told CNN that no one has been suspended or terminated, but warnings were issued.
WaterSaver Faucet said the issue has been "mischaracterized by union leadership."
"We understand that employees need to use the washroom outside of scheduled break times. Any person may go to the washroom at any time they need. It should be noted that union leadership previously had agreed to a policy regarding washroom use, and even suggested language for it," the company said.
The Teamsters Local 743 agreed to the company's proposed incentive program to pay workers $1 per day, up to $20 a month, if the employee visited the bathroom only during breaks or other non-work time, according to the union's statement to the labor board.
Kreitman told ABC News that none of the 200 or so contracts the union manages with other companies have such policies.
In general, a work rule that seems unfair or silly is not illegal unless it impacts a protected group disproportionately, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If this rule of 60 minutes per month in the bathroom hypothetically affected women more than men, because, for example, they may need more breaks for menstrual periods, it might be sex discrimination, an EEOC spokeswoman said. Or if the rule affected older men, many of whom have prostate problems, it might be a combination of sex and age discrimination.
Last year, one T-Mobile employee who was given two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch, claimed she was instructed to clock out to use the restroom while she was pregnant because it wasn't enough time.
And a 51-year old woman was dismissed from the Minnesota factory of Electrolux Home Products in August 2012 for urinating in a box after being refused a bathroom break. Last year, an arbitrator ruled the firing violated her union contract and she was reinstated.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration states employees have a right to bathroom use. Electrolux stated that it complied by providing a half-hour lunch break and two 10-minute breaks for restroom use for every four hours, which is in its collective bargaining agreement with the International Association of Machinists (IAM), according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
In China, factory workers in Shanghai revolted in January 2013 over two-minute toilet breaks, according to the Associated Press.
If an employee had a disability, such as irritable bowel syndrome or needed to change a colostomy bag, an employer would have to modify its limited bathroom breaks policy to accommodate the disability, unless it could show that doing so would be an undue hardship, a spokeswoman for the EEOC said. Cases that involve bathroom policies and alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act occur more frequently than those involving gender or age discrimination, she said.